The Age of the Fragment

Guest blog by Dr. David Rundle

The fact that this symposium is about to happen bears witness to a larger movement. Simultaneously, on both sides of the Atlantic and in a multitude of independent initiatives, manuscript scholars are paying special attention to fragments — to the imperfect, usually worse-for-wear and sometimes downright tatty, remnants of lost codices. As the Romantics found fascination in the ruined buildings of a pre-Reformation past, we are in the grips of fragment-lust. We should celebrate this new interest but we should also pause for a moment to ask ourselves why it is happening now.

We are, of course, not the first discoverers of the fragment. We cannot but be aware that we are Bernard of Chartres’s pygmies seated on the shoulders of giants, such as (from the second half of the twentieth century alone) Neil Ker and J. P. Gumbert. Yet, if we can see further or deeper, it is not just because of the height to which they have lifted us but because of the potential of the digital. It is this ongoing development of technology which is the most obvious reason for our present fascination. In 1819, Angelo Mai was able, with the naked eye, to detect large portions of a work which previous generations had yearned to read — Cicero’s De re publica — hidden as the lower script of a palimpsest codex in the Vatican library. Incidentally, that manuscript is now available on-line with two photographs for each folio, one ‘natural’ and one taken under UV to assist reading of the under-text. This does not claim to be at the cutting-edge of technology: in the early twenty-first century, the ability to recover scripts is being increased by a combination of multi-spectral imaging and new techniques of image processing. What has become the locus classicus for this has been the work on the so-called Archimedes Palimpsest at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

Work with fragments does not need to be that novel (or that expensive) to benefit from the possibilities offered by the digital. The more basic transformation is the increased facility to take high-quality images and to upload them on-line. This invites us to grasp the manifest opportunities to bring together fragments which are physically distant from each other. In doing this, manuscript scholars are taking part in the larger fashion for ‘virtual reunification’, which encourages collaboration among museums to reconstruct artworks whose constituent elements have become separated — or, when, as in the cities that have suffered from the attentions of Islamic State, the original no longer exists at all.

The digital is undoubtedly the laboratory where the new interest in fragments is taking place, but that does not mean we should fall into technological determinism. The excitement of new gadgetry plays its part but, it appears to me, it runs alongside another shift. Each generation of scholars looks afresh at the evidence, moving the parameters of our knowledge by asking new questions of known material and by bringing to the table previously unknown primary sources. That fragments exist in large quantity has long been common knowledge but the magnitude of their number has surely been underestimated — ‘surely’ because the work of identification and of cataloguing them is only now in progress. It is understandable that libraries should have concentrated attention on their complete codices, and there are obvious barriers to cataloguing fragments: the increased difficulty of textual identification from a scrap of a page has often been seen to outweigh the benefit of being able to record that we have yet another copy of a relatively well-known work. Yet, as more of the main collections are catalogued in at least some form, the challenge of making accessible these further recesses of an institution’s holdings becomes more pressing. This is perhaps combined with a pedagogical pressure, the move to ‘object-based learning’ which encourages students to have contact with the medieval artefact at an early stage of their training. Erik Kwakkel’s work at Leiden, setting each of his students to describe one of the uncatalogued fragments in the University Library’s collection, is just one example of this exciting approach. We should applaud such initiatives but perhaps we should reflect that they hold the danger of assuming that working with fragments is a preliminary stage, the first steps of walking in the codicological world, before grappling with ‘grown-up’ complete manuscripts. I call it a danger because, as I have suggested elsewhere, the describing of membra disjecta arguably requires more exacting standards than those usually expected for a full codex, if all the potential information a fragment can provide is to be extracted from it.

The preceding paragraphs have suggested how we are living through change: the age of the fragment is still coming into being. Some might wonder if it should be allowed to survive its infancy. It is right that we should be challenged to explain what we are going to add to human knowledge. Collecting together disparate elements of a former manuscript may provide all the fun of a jigsaw, and a very special one at that — it might well be enjoyable (at least, to for those of us who find delight in such things) but that does not necessarily mean it is worth the effort in intellectual terms. A leading scholar of fragments, Lisa Fagin Davis, puts it well when she asks: ‘What do we gain from piecing Humpty Dumpty together again?’ Her own answer is that a reconstructed manuscript can be more than the sum of its parts. That applies to those cases when reconstruction of a substantial proportion of a codex is possible. We would not want to pretend that is always possible, or, I would add, reject a fragment because we cannot associate it with others, at the moment. Instead, we should recognise that our new evidence allows us to ask new questions. For instance, (and at the risk of repeating what I have said before) by gathering together a large corpus of fragments, we should be able to harness another digital development, that of Big Data, and ask what these witnesses to lost manuscripts can, together, tell us about the culture from which they came.

The questions we can ask are not only about medieval culture; in thinking about why these fragments have survived, we will inevitably be raising questions about later centuries, including our own. We ourselves must be one of the subjects of our study. This returns me to where I began: why have we, at this point in our history, succumb to fragment-lust? The reasons may not all be practical considerations. We might celebrate the fact that our ability to reunite pieces of parchment is greater than ever before; we might see in this a symptom of the power of the internet to bring together and to harmonise our fractured civilization. What we gain, though, is also a dwelling on what we have lost. There is surely some sense of nostalgia or chagrin: as Villon did not say, ou sont les manuscrits d’antan? Are we sure that backward-longing is only for a long-lost medieval past, or is there also, perhaps, at some subconscious level, a wistfulness for a more recent, less global time? Is a networked world tied together in so many ways that its very complexity makes us yearn for something more comprehensible because it is less complete? Is the age of the fragment a desire for a fragmentary age?

The implications of these questions are not easy ones for ourselves. We might say that we do not need to ask them as we work at the codicological coalface, dirtying our hands with the single leaves, partial pages and tiny strips that are the subject of our attention. But there is, I firmly believe, an importance in putting down our tools for a moment and reflecting on the purpose of what we are doing. I hope and anticipate the forthcoming symposium will give us the opportunity to do that.

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